Thursday, October 2, 2014

Interview with John Guzlowski (Part 3)

Hope, for me, is a wish.
~ Poet John Guzlowski

Today concludes my in-depth interview with poet, essayist, novelist, and short story writer John Guzlowski. The son of survivors of the Holocaust, John has allowed us to accompany him on a journey he himself makes again and again, which involves telling stories of cruelty, death and profound loss, unparalleled suffering, memories and remembrance, love. John's stories pay homage to compelling voices that cannot be silenced.

In Part 1 of my interview, "Living the Stories: During and After the War", John shared the experiences of his late parents, Jan Gurlowski and Tekla Hanczarek Guzlowski, as they began telling him of their horrific experiences, first in Germany's slave labor camps and then as "displaced persons" in refugee camps. Those stories, as John has written in the Epilogue to his moving collection Lightning and Ashes, "became the white background noise of [his] life", stories he can never remember not hearing. In Part 2, "Telling the Stories in Poetry", John told us how he shaped his parents' stories into plain-language poems that preserve his parents voices forever. Here, in Part 3, "Keeping the Stories Alive", John answers my final questions about his parents' perspective on America, his first and subsequent trips to Poland, how his poetry writing has changed since his parents' deaths, and what the word "hope" means to him.

You'll find in Part 1 brief biographical information about John, a professor emeritus of Eastern Illinois University, as well as links to his poetry collections and blogs and additional references.

Poems and family photos are courtesy of John Guzlowski.

Keeping the Stories Alive
Interview with John Guzlowski, Part 3

Maureen Doallas: What was your parents' perspective on life in America? Did they ever express a desire to return to Poland or to the kind of life they had before the war?

John Guzlowski: My dad tried to return [to Poland] right after the war, and the communists tried to kill him. After that, he had no desire to return—at least not while the communists were there. 

My mom was the same way. Her brother did return [to Poland] and was taken to Siberia, to the Gulag. He never returned.

I think they both realized that that life was over. There were both farm kids before the war but after it, they had no desire to go back to the land, no desire to live on a  farm. I think they just had too many bad memories, too much fear associated with all that.

MD: What were your parents' aspirations for you and your sister?

JG: I've never been asked this question. Good question.

When I was a kid, my father kept telling people that I would be a general and lead an American army to liberate Poland. When he saw that that wasn't going to happen, he wanted me to get as much education as I could. He was illiterate and had so much respect for books, and my sister and I were both great readers. He would never call us to help with chores, if he saw us reading. He and my mom encouraged us to get as much education as we could. They knew that education would open a world to us.

MD: If you could share only one anecdote about each of your parents, what would the stories be?

JG: About my dad, I wold tell the story of how, when he was close to death, the two of us went out to the garden he loved and he asked me to help him plant one more lemon tree. He was too weak to do any work but he sat down and talked to me in Polish about how to plant [the tree] and where to plant it.

In a Garden
Jan and Tekla Guzlowski in Their Seventies

About my mom, I would tell the story from my poem "My Mother's Optimism"*, about how I came to see her in the hospital after her surgery for ovarian cancer. She was weak but she pulled up her hospital gown and asked me to look at the 14-inch scar [running] from her breasts to below her navel. When I said I couldn't, she said, "Johnny, don't be such a baby!"

We ended up laughing.

MD: What is the question you are asked most often when you talk about your parents? 

JG: People always want to know how my parents got together. They were taken to Germany at different times and, for much of their time in Germany, were prisoners in different places. 

By the way, it's a great story — I wrote an essay about it recently, called "How My Parents Met" —  especially my mom's take on first meeting my dad just after the guards fled her camp and my dad showed up with these other prisoners on a death march. [The essay] is online at Shout Out UK.  Just google my name and that title. [Read the essay, dated July 20, 2014.]

The question that makes me most uncomfortable is whether or not my parents' experiences have strengthened my faith. I find it an odd question. I would think that the answer would be that, having heard about so many of my family members brutalized by the Nazis, I would have lost my faith years ago, like my mom did. What surprises me is that my dad had any faith whatsoever, given what he saw.

MD: What is the question you wish you would be asked?

JG: I wish people would ask my why I love comic books and science fiction and fantasy novels.

MD: What was it like for you to visit Poland for the first time? Did you read your poems there; how were they received?

JG: The first time my wife, my daughter, and I visited Poland was in 1991, and we were just tourists in a car—driving around, seeing the sites. I didn't do any readings. We visited Wroclaw (Breslau), Krakow, and Auschwitz. Poland was just coming out from under the communists and the country felt poor, besieged, hungry. We would go into a restaurant and be given menus [on which] every item had been crossed out, except maybe eggs and a vegetable. The people seemed desperate, and everywhere we went, people asked us for money. Once we were even threatened, almost robbed.

My parents had visited Poland about two years earlier and found the same conditions. In fact, a couple nights after I told my mom that we were going to be visiting Poland on our own, she called me to tell me she had had a dream, that the Polish police found my body on the shore of a stream and dogs were eating it. She begged me not to go.

The second time was in 2002; I was invited then to do a series of reading that coincided with the publication of a Polish-English edition of my first book, Language of Mules. I read in Katowice, Lublin, and Warsaw. It was a different Poland. It felt rich, happy, and cosmopolitan. It felt like Germany or Holland.

The receptions were very interesting. I read before student groups mainly, and I was surprised by how much background information about the war and the camps I had to give them. I asked the teachers about this and they said that the students didn't know that much about the war. They were, however, very interested in hearing [about] it.

What was most interesting to me, of course, was how I felt about being in Poland. For me, it felt like a homecoming. I still could speak Polish and felt that, innately, I understood the culture. Of course, that's now how the Poles saw me. They thought my Polish was old-fashioned and odd, and they repeatedly asked me to speak in English because they couldn't get my dialect. My sense of Polish culture was also odd to them. I learned about Poland from my mom and dad, who had left Poland in the middle of the war in the early '40s. What they taught me about Poland wasn't the Poland that exists now. There was a serious disconnect between me and Poland but Poland was still inviting. I think [that Poland] thought my old-fashionedness was kind of cute.

MD: How has your poetry or other writing changed since your parents' death? Are there things you couldn't write while your parents were alive that you now feel can be revealed?

JG: Le me address your second question first: Whatever my parents told me, I felt free to write about. I didn't hold back. They knew it, and I think they expected me to write about what they told me.

There were things that happened, [especially to my mother], that she wouldn't tell me about, and she admitted this. My poem "My Mother Reads My Poem 'Cattle Train to Magdeburg'" [from Prologue, Lightning and Ashes] ends with her saying:

"Even though you're a grown man
and a teacher, we saw things
I don't want to tell you about."

What didn't she want to tell me? About the brutality.

Often she would start a story, and realize where it was going, and she would stop herself.

What this tells me is that the brutality she couldn't talk about must have been terrible. Considering that she told me about women being raped, children [being] murdered, people burned alive, I can only assume that the things she couldn't talk about were truly horrendous.

Cover Art for The Third Winter of War: Buchenwald
by Polish Artist Vojtek Luka

Has my writing changed since my parents died? Definitely.

What's changed is that I don't have my parents' memories to work with [anymore]. They inspired me to write. Whenever I spent a week or two with my parents, I would always be writing. In the evenings, they would tell me stories about the camps and the war, and I would write down these stories, make notes that I would begin working over while I was there. When I got back home, I would work these notes into poems.

I don't have [my parents] anymore and I'm 66 now, and as I get older and older, I remember less of what they told me. I used to think I was the "great rememberer" and, now, I realize I'm not.

Sometimes, something my mom or dad said, a phrase or a detail, will pop up and I'll try to remember more, but that's getting harder to do.

What I'm finding myself doing more and more of is the kind of writing I almost never did while my parents were alive: writing about myself.

I spent so long writing about my parents' memories that it feels strange writing about my own memories and experiences. I never thought it was important to write about what I thought about a corn field in central Illinois or what the universe expects from me but now I find myself writing about that.

I've written series of poems about my own growing up that, of course, include my parents and my sister. Recently, as I mentioned earlier [in Part 2 of this interview], the series Promise Land was published online. These poems resemble somewhat the poems in the middle section of Lightning and Ashes.

The other poems? I've written a number of sort of philosophical poems about God, the universe, what we're here for. Interestingly, these often are constructed around literary and religious figures: [Fyodor] Dostoevsky, John Milton, T.S. Eliot, the mad Buddhist monk Ikkyu. Sort of persona poems.

In some ways, I guess, I'm maintaining my tendency to write my own life through the lives of others.

New Year's Eve, Chicago, Illinois, 1958
John Guzlowski, Tekla Guzlowski, Donna Guzlowski, and Jan Guzlowski

MD: What does the word "hope" mean to you? If your parents had been asked to define the word, what would they have said?

JG: Hope, for me, is tied up with family and friends, [with] people. Hope, for me, is a wish. I hope that all of our lives get better, that war and plague and cruelty somehow get pushed further and further back, that we discover that we don't have to kill each other to be happy.

My parents were two of the greatest optimists I ever knew. They knew death and misery inside out but they also knew hope. They had experienced sorrow and trials like I can't imagine, not only during the war but after. They came to a country where they didn't know anyone, didn't know the language, didn't know anything. They had to build new lives for themselves and for my sister and me.

And they kept going, sure that things would somehow get better.

I recently had a discussion with a friend whose parents also were in the camps, and we talked about whether or not we would have what it took to survive, and she said that she would have just given up, given in to the misery and laid down and let the Germans kill her.

I don't believe her. I don't think she would [have given] up. From what I've seen, most people don't give up. Maybe some do but the majority don't.

I once talked about this with my mother. I asked her about hope and what kept people like her and my dad going. My mom looked at me and said, "Optimism is a crazy man's mother."

It's a profound statement, I think. And it gets at the heart of her understanding of hope.

At the very end of her life, after two major surgeries for cancer, decades of heart problems, and arthritis that had left her crippled, [my mother] had a stroke after a gall bladder operation that paralyzed her almost completely. She couldn't move her hands or feet, could barely speak. The doctors didn't think she could recover from this and I told her that, and I asked her if she wanted to be taken off her life support. Forcing her lips and tongue to move, she said, "No."

I wrote a poem about this kind of hope, the hope my mom and dad had. It's called "My People":

My People

My people were all poor people,
the ones who survived to look
in my eyes and touch my fingers
and those who didn't, dying instead

of fever, hunger, or even a bullet
in the face, dying maybe thinking
of how their deaths were balanced
by my birth or one of the other

stories the poor tell themselves
to give themselves the strength
to crawl out of their own graves.

Not all of  them had this strength
but enough did, so that I'm here
and you're here reading this poem
about them. What kept them going?

Maybe something in the souls
of people who start with nothing
and end with nothing, and in between
live from one handful of nothing
to the next handful of nothing.

They keep going—through the terror
in the snow and the misery
in the rain—till some guy pierces
their stomachs with a bayonet

or some sickness grips them, and still
they keep going, even when there
aren't any rungs on the ladder
even when there aren't any ladders.

I am privileged to have had this opportunity to interview John Guzlowski and thank him once again for sharing his parents'  stories and his own story to help "keep alive" the voices we all need to hear.

* "My Mother's Optimism" is found in "Part I, What It's Like Now", in Lightning and Ashes.

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